Antony and Cleopatra at the Liverpool Playhouse is my Hamlet experience inverted. I’ve never read or seen the play, but I’ve seen every episode of Sex And The City a thousand times so there are expectations aplenty for Kim Cattrall’s Cleo. She’s wonderful. So is Jeffery Kissoon as Antony and, my favourite, Ian Hogg as Enobarbus. It’s played how I imagine Victorian Shakespeare was played, histrionic, full of exclamation marks, straight to the audience, with arms! Kim, in her toned-down Theda Bara-esque get-up, channels Joan Crawford a little. She brings out any and all possible comedy, she endearingly wears glasses for signing the official documents, she is sulky and petulant, then regal, kind to her women, then controlling, not afraid to pull rank as the situation dictates. I guess it’s all there in the lines but she’s a powerhouse, with a British accent to boot. When Antony dies she pulls her handmaids to her saying, ‘My noble girls! Ah, women, women, look, Our lamp is spent, it’s out!’ And it really is her play, Cleopatra is on stage a long time after Antony dies, and it’s the humiliation of Egypt under Rome that prompts her suicide as much as her despair at losing him. It’s no hissy-fit suicide like in Romeo and Juliet, part of the charm of the play is that it’s about mature love. When Cleo looks back with some bemusement on her ‘salad days’ you can feel the experience behind her, and Antony too. Oh but Enorbarbus! He is so ashamed at betraying Antony he literally lies down in a ditch to die, saying:
Then he sinks down into the stage and disappears.
An interesting thing this production does is to have Octavius Caesar’s sister, Octavia, played by a man. Not unusual for Shakespeare in one sense, but there are three real women playing too. My theory is this. The Egyptian court is peopled with women and feminised eunuchs, the Roman court is entirely masculine, they are always in uniform, it is the great unsullied patriarchy. Aside from Antony, who is spoken of as being feminised by his association with Egypt, it is Octavia who bridges these two worlds, albeit briefly, and in that context her transgendered status seems less gimmicky. The actor played it beautifully, understated and demure, the initial titters soon fell away. The best unintentional laugh is still funny though, even on the page. Antony falls dramatically onto his sword to take his life, then after a moment’s silence, lifts up his head and says ‘How! Not dead?’ The audience roared. Oops.